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He was aching with inactivity. He could never sit down for long. The television company had asked if they could conduct the interview in the farmhouse kitchen at Featherstone Hall, saying the kitchen would make him seem more human and approachable.
Thinking publicity would help raise awareness of his campaign, he had agreed, and now he found himself sitting in the glare of camera lights, while a girl with dirty toenails and an earnest air snapped a clapperboard in his facewhich was doing nothing for his blood pressure. 'That's it,' he said, standing up.
'But, Lieutenant Colonel Grant Cade.' She clearly thought that using his first name might soften him. She was destined to fail. 'You haven't finished interviewing the prospective candidates for the post of ' she paused for dramatic effect ' Housekeeper to a Hero'
'If you mean the stooges'
The earnest one's eyes gleamed. "No one else turned up And so in order to prevent the interview from being a complete disaster, I provided'
'Stooges from your team? Yes, I know.' He pushed his chair back. And now you can all pack up and go home; this interview is over.'
He stood at his full height, knowing that with the top of his head brushing the beams he was an intimidating sight. He should have known it was a mistake to let anyone into his life, and that it was just an excuse to pry. The only reason he'd done it this time was because he'd hoped television coverage would promote his scheme to turn Featherstone Hall into a rehabilitation centre for returning soldiers; a service he was determined to expand throughout the country. But the reporter was only interested in graphic stories ofheroics, with plenty of blood and gore, she told him. He'd flinched at that, and when she'd added that sort of stuff worked miracles for the ratings he'd felt like telling her it was lucky for her she wasn't a man, or he'd have invited her outside. Grinding his jaw as he waited for the camera crew to pack up their gear, he knew he shouldn't blame the reporter. He should be glad she was ignorant of what he had been through and was spared the reality behind the images on her television screen.
As soon as the last of them had gone he set about clearing up, and had no sooner piled their dirty coffee-cups into an already overloaded sink than the whole stack keeled over. He swore viciously, having cut himself on a piece of shattered china. And now the cut wouldn't stop bleeding
He banged about, searching for plasters. How could a home turn to chaos in the time he'd been away? The first housekeeper he'd hired to take care of things had appeared tough and uncompromising. Just the sort of person he could relate to, in fact. He should have known a black belt in karate and more stubble on her chin than he had was no guarantee of domestic goddess statusand to add insult to injury she'd walked out the day after he got back saying he was impossible to live with.
And now there hadn't been a single reply to his ad for a replacement. The reporter said his reputation must have frightened everyone away. That and his appearance, he guessed, judging by the way the camera crew had stared at his scars. He suspected they would have liked more close-ups to shock the viewers. Fingering his stubble, he glanced in the mirror. He couldn't blame them.
And he hardly had the temperament of a saint, Cade registered grimly, cursing a second time when he scalded his wounded hand trying to rescue a second piece of shattered pottery from the sink. He was in a foul mood now.
Hearing a knock on the door ratcheted it up a notch or two. He might have known someone from the film crew would forget something.
'Yes?' He flung the door wide. And was forced to adjust his eye line radically down to where a small bedraggled wretch stood on his doorstep wearing some type of fancy dress.
'Can I come in?' she said.
He took everything in at a glance. Something inside him stirred, which required stamping on, plus a stern reminder that appearances could be deceptive. The girl was young with honey-coloured hair hanging in drenched straggles around a heart-shaped face. She wore a tiara, tilted at a precarious angle on her head, and her silk shoes were ruined. What appeared to be a bridal gown and veil were ripped and streaked with mud and now he could see she'd been cryingwhether from relief or grief, he couldn't know. But one thing he did knowthis was not fancy dress. 'What do you want?' he asked suspiciously.
'The job you advertised The notice on the gate?'
Standing back, he thumbed his stubble. He needed someone, and quickly. But first he had to make sure he'd got this right. He raised his brow as he looked the girl over a second time. 'You are applying for the job as my housekeeper?'
'I know this doesn't look good,' she said, mashing her lips together as she struggled to convince him. 'And of course I would have preferred to make a proper application wearing a suit'
'But events overtook me.'
Talk about understatement. But she held his gaze steadily enough, and this was hardly a high-risk situation. 'Okay, you can come in.'
'Do you mind if I get warm?' she said, walking straight past him to hold her hands in front of the blazing log fire.
'Go right ahead.' It was a reasonable request, and she was shakingwith cold or shock, he couldn't tell. He closed the door and turned back to find her unpinning her veil. Her pale arms glowed pink in the firelight, adding to her air of vulnerability. Where there had been anger and impatience and frustration in his head, now there was only curiosity and more than a flicker of inconvenient desire.
Between the flight from her wedding and her arrival here, in the kitchen at Featherstone Hall, everything was a horrible blurup to now when it had snapped into sharp focus. Her senses were on full alert. And it was all thanks to the man resting against the door with his arms folded and his head tipped back, weighing her up. The power of his gaze, the spread of his shoulders, even his stillness, were arresting. When she had stumbled off the bus and found the notice on the gates advertising the post of housekeeper she had pictured some elderly retainer conducting the interviewnot a hunk in jeans and a snug-fitting top with dog tags swinging round his neck. This man was as different from poor Horacethe almost-husband she had left at the altaras it was possible to be. Stifling a guilty sob as she thought about the look on Horace's face when she had bolted, Liv started to tug at the wedding dress she didn't deserve to wear.
'What do you think you're doing?'
'Taking it off ' The man's voice was low and husky, and had done things to her insides that should be forbidden by law; things that stirred the guilt inside her to the point where she had to confess. 'I've done something terrible.'
'Robbed a bank? Killed someone?'
'Really, I have And now I can't go back.'
'That bad?' He thumbed his stubble once again.
'Can I stay here?'
As her lips trembled and her eyes filled with tears he knew he had to forget the attraction element and concentrate on getting to the bottom of this. 'I think we'd better start with introductions, don't you?'
'Liv Tate,' she mumbled. After some hesitation she gathered herself enough to extend a soft, perfectly manicured hand and add, 'My first name is Olivia, but my friends call me Liv.'
He went into the handshake with his unwounded right hand. Considering her obvious distress, the strength in Liv's grip surprised him. He released her before any more concerning sensations could get a hold of him.
'I've told you my name,' she reminded him, 'but as yet I don't know yours '
'My apologies for the omission.' He made her a slight bow. 'Lieutenant Colonel Cade Grant But you can call me Cade.'
When their hands connected he felt a jolt, an unwelcome jolt that reminded him why he stayed away from peopleand women like this one, especially. He shunned feelings. All feelings. All the time. 'Something wrong?' he demanded when she continued to stare at him.
'My turn to apologise. I was just surprised to hear your name. I didn't connect it when I saw the family crest on the top of your notice because that said Grant Featherstone Carew.'
'Just imagine signing for a parcel.'
The look of irony in his eyes made her laugh. It also jolted a primitive urge inside her that made her gasp when she recognised it as instant, potent, dazzling lust. And now she couldn't have been angrier with herself for the lapse in concentration. She recovered herself to say primly, 'Yes, I can see why you might shorten it.'
Lieutenant Colonel Cade Grant, local war hero? How slow was she? Bolting from her own wedding must have scrambled her brain. You could hardly pick up a newspaper or switch on the television without there being some report about Cade Grant's bravery under fire. The reasons for his extended leave might have been vague, but no one questioned a hero's right to some R and R. 'Of course I've heard of youwho hasn't? And I know I shouldn't stare'
At what?' he demanded. 'The scars?' His mood took a dive as he fingered his face.
'Scars?' Her brow puckered and then her eyes cleared as she focused on them. 'Sorry again, I hadn't noticed them. I was just thinking how much better looking you are in the flesh than on the television' She gulped, went bright red and pressed her lips together as if she didn't trust herself to speak another word.
Surprising himself, he badly wanted to smile.
Starting to fumble with the tiny buttons on the back of her dress, she angled her back towards him. 'Could you help me with this, please?'
He hesitated, and then thought, Why not?
She felt Cade move behind her on silent feet like a big cat. His warmth surrounded her, sending tingles of sensation down her spine. She could smell his scent, clean and musky with a hint of toothpaste in the mix. She held her breath as he reached out and touched her.
'This terrible thing you did Are you ready to tell me about it yet?'
In a moment when she could breathe again! And, truthfully, she had been hoping he wouldn't ask. She felt so ashamed. She'd let everyone downespecially her mother, whose day this really was. Not to mention both families. And Horace. The guilt bit deep as she thought about Horace.
'Well?' Cade pressed.
She blushed furiously. For such a big, tough man his voice could turn surprisingly gentle. He made her want to talk. 'I abandoned my fiancé at the altar '
She waited for a reaction, but Cade just went, 'Hmm,' and started undoing the top button on her dress. The brush of his fingertips on her naked skin made it impossible to speak for another long moment.
'Go on,' he encouraged. 'You've started so you might as well go the whole way now.'
Her eyes widened at this suggestion until she shook her brains cells into some sort of order. 'Horace was harmless He was really nice. He didn't deserve this'
'He must have done something wrong.'
She wracked her brains. 'No that's just it'
'Keep still, will you? Or I can't undo this.'
She tensed, and then relaxed into the starburst sensations created by Cade's fingers moving smoothly on. 'Horace's worst crime ' She managed, discovering it was hard to find a balance between her need for more sensation and the need to get things out in the open.
'Horace's worst crime?' Cade encouraged.
She blinked furiously as Cade opened a button close to her waist and she felt the reverberations of his touch all through her lower body. 'He was too nice,' she blurted, moving forward out of range.
'Too nice? What's that?'
'But so immature You know ' She made a half-hearted attempt to explain to Cade what she meant. 'Whenever Horace saw a pretty girl at the golf club, he ' She bit down on her lip. She couldn't bring herself to be so disloyal, not even now.
No, Cade didn't. Or at least, she hoped not. Horace was harmless, and almost certainly less well prepared than she was for their wedding night. Her mother hadn't wanted to talk about sex with her, but there had been magazines to guide her, and some of the articles had been really helpful. But when it came to the real thing well, she couldn't face it; not with Horace. 'I feel so bad Horace is such a softie.'
'Which was why you agreed to marry him, I presume?'
And why she had bolted too. They would never have made each other happy.
Cade gathered Horace was a bit of a chump, but not a bad bloke. What Liv had told him had cleared the air. It explained something about her situation, and he could tell she felt better for it. Her actions had been a tad on the dramatic side, but he could see why she had cut and run before a disastrous marriage had made both Liv and her fiancé unhappy.
And he was a marriage guidance counsellor now?
Of all the crazy situationsand he'd been in a fewthis one was a peach. Liv reminded him of the wounded animals he used to bring home as a boythe birds with broken wings he'd put in shoes boxes filled with cotton wool.
And how exactly did he think he could help her with her mixed up emotions when he was used to men, fighting men commanding them. He hadn't touched a woman in too long, anyway.
The buttons she wanted him to open extended down the length of her spine to the hollow just above the swell of her buttocks. When he'd freed the first of them he'd noticed how soft her skin was, and by the time she'd lifted her hair out of the way and he'd seen the tiny birthmark like a love-bite at her hairline he wanted to taste it. He'd killed that thought immediately, just as he was going to pull back now. 'You can finish the rest of them yourself.'
Stepping out of the dress, she stood facing him in a plain silk shift. 'I hate to ask, but do you have a jumper I could borrow?'
As she turned her big blue eyes on him it took him a moment to refocus. A jumper?' Anything of his would trail on the ground if she wore it. With her bare feet and bedraggled appearance she looked like a waif Cinderella. And he was no Prince Charming. He was already regretting his decision to let her in. What business had he allowing someone so young and vulnerable into his life?
An old sweater anything,' she pressed him.
He grimaced as she held out the discarded wedding dress. 'I'll get you a dustbin bag.'